Yesterday I finished the touching memoir Without the Mask, by Charlie Bird. If you’re looking for a heartfelt book of a young person’s struggle with same-sex attraction, I highly recommend this one.
Charlie Bird was born in 1993, the year before I graduated Brigham Young University. Twenty five years later (yikes, my age is showing) he catapulted (literally) to the forefront as the beloved dancing, tumbling BYU mascot, Cosmo the Cougar. In 2017, Charlie’s Cosmo danced with the acclaimed Cougarettes for the first time and a video of their performance went viral. Instantly, Cosmo became the most famous university mascot in America.
But under the enthusiastic leaps and iconic costume, Charlie was grappling with the knowledge that he was gay in a very religious, conservative family and culture. His truth and his faith were at war. Encouraged by Sheri Dew, president of Deseret Book, Charlie decided to write an article, then this book, describing his journey.
His writing is beautiful as he describes his devotion to a faith that has shaped his life and feelings that contradict what he was taught in that faith. Never a victim and very clear that he doesn’t want to be a poster child for the “gay Mormon,” he writes of how he identifies himself, coming to the realization that his faith and his feelings can coexist.
Many will disagree with his approach and his decision to stay with a church that is working harder to show compassion to their LGBTQ+ members but does not condone gay marriage, but this is his story and no one else’s. I think there are many Christian families who will find Without the Mask to be a helpful stepping stone to discussion and understanding. I came away feeling great admiration for Charlie’s courage, testimony, and strength of character. It was a superb read.
Charlie talks about his book and coming out:
Watch Charlie as Cosmo the Cougar and the Cougarettes in their famous video:
This morning I saw an interesting post. Someone asked the question: “What was the last book you read that left you with a book hangover?” It got me thinking.
If you’re unaware, a book hangover can best be described as that feeling of numbness and mourning that happens when you finish a book that leaves you emotionally gutted. Some authors, like Diane Chamberlain and Brigid Kemmerer, are especially skilled at writing stories that have that effect on me. It’s probably why I keep going back to their books again and again.
Can a story still be great and not leave you with a book hangover? Absolutely! In fact, three of my favorite authors usually don’t (Katherine Center, Boo Walker, Mimi Matthews,) but I still find their writing engrossing and love their books. Like all reading, it’s a highly personal feeling. The important thing, hangover or not, is that special connection between an author’s work and the reader.
After seeing the original question, I went to Goodreads and browsed books I’ve read so far this year. There are lots, many of which I’ve rated very highly on this blog, but only fourteen qualify for the book hangover category. If you’re a reading slump, and it happens to all of us, I’m certain that one of these books will save you. Most have reviews on this site. Happy Reading!
During the first few months of 1986, the world was swirling in a double-helix of tragedy. In January, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, extinguishing the lives of six astronauts and a beloved teacher. The Russian nuclear disaster at Chernobyl happened on April 25th, bringing with it an apocalyptic panic that resonated for years.
So it is no wonder that when the Los Angeles Central Library caught fire on April 29th, the event did not get the press it deserved. I can attest to this personally. I was fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school living ten miles away, and I never even knew this devastation took place until reading about it nearly forty years later.
But Central Library has a life beyond the fire. There is richness in its design and in the ebb and flow that has mirrored world and national events for decades. Wars, Prohibition, the Depression, women’s rights, homelessness, politics–whatever is happening outside the library’s doors also affects its interior.
And then there is the mystery. Was this conflagration a crime or an accident? Old wiring or arson? There are conflicting theories, but some facts were undeniable. The inferno raged for nearly eight hours, reaching nearly 3000 degrees, becoming the worst library fire in American history. Restoring what was damaged would take years. Recovering what was lost would be impossible.
Susan Orlean has written a fascinating book that is about so much more than a building on fire. We learn about the colorful characters who worked on and in the library, the directors, the conflicts, the changes, and the employees. We also learn about the eccentric suspect who may or may not have been behind the blaze, whose story kept changing, and who basked in all of the attention.
This was a great read. You’ll never look at any library in quite the same way again.
You never know quite what to expect with a Charles Martin book, and that philosophy certainly carries over with his upcoming novel, The Last Exchange.
Despite the serene-looking cover, a lot happens in this story, centering around the bond between the oddly-named young actress Maybe Joe Sue and her Scottish bodyguard, Pockets. Yes, Charles Martin wins the award for unique character names!
“Joe” skyrocketed to early fame after being discovered while waitressing, garnering awards, millions of dollars, and plenty of unwanted attention. But a troubled childhood has left a lot of emptiness that she attempts to fend off with pills and bad relationships.
Kelly MacThomas Pockets, with his experience in the military, has now been hired as Joe’s bodyguard while her husband films on location and philanders with other women. Pockets is a firm believer in “the line,” that boundary of emotion and physicality that you never, ever cross with an employer.
Yet, within this platonic team is fierce devotion, and it goes in both directions. Between Joe’s resources and Pockets’ unusual methods, they go to great lengths for each other in a story that has suspense, action, and a plot that grabs hold of you until the very end. I don’t want to give anything away, so this vague review is done by design, but I really enjoyed this surprising book!
This is it for May! I’m posting my wrap up a little early because I doubt I’ll finish another book by tomorrow.
This very cool calendar is brought to you by the free app Bookmory. It’s available with iOS and Android. I have it set so that books appear on the dates they were completed. Shout out to my bookish friend, Bernadette, who told me about it.
How about that big chunk of empty space in the middle of the month? Can you tell that was the week I spent beta reading and glued to my computer? I’m getting mentally prepared for the possibility that June could have a week like this too. We’ll see!
If I had to pick my favorite books for the month, I would definitely choose the ones that have 5 stars on the graphic:
Weyward, by Emilia Hart (fiction, magical realism, women’s fiction)
Schooled, by Gordon Korman (fiction, YA, middle school)
A Heart Worth Stealing, by Joanna Barker (clean historical romance)
The Happy Life of Isadora Bentley, by Courtney Walsh (Available June 13) (fiction)
All of these have individual reviews on this site and are worth your time. In a reading slump? They will come to your rescue. I promise. (ooh, that’s dangerous)
Diane Chamberlain is an author I might have never discovered if it hadn’t been for NetGalley. As popular and prolific as she is, her books never made it on my radar. That all changed when I read an advanced copy of The Last House on the Street and was hooked from start to finish. I soon learned that many of my bookish friends count her as a favorite author and now, I do too.
Chamberlain has written dozens of bestsellers. So far, I’ve only read four. (I will keep reading more!) I’ve loved every one of them, amazed at their uniqueness and thought-provoking, compelling stories. They often deal with hot button topics and have their share of “trigger warnings,” but they are relatively clean and written with incredible skill.
Despite very distinct stories, the books I’ve read share a few things in common: A North Carolina setting, a dual timeline, and racism in the American South. But that is where the similarities end.
Today I swept through Big Lies in a Small Town. 400+ pages of momentum, tension, and mystery that I could not stop reading. This novel centers around a mural being painted in 1940 and restored in 2018 by two different women, each grappling with challenges and obstacles imposed upon them by people, history, and deadlines. As in other Chamberlain books, the stories have a brief but crucial overlap that brings everything into focus by the end.
I will link to the reviews I’ve written on other novels by Diane Chamberlain. They always leave me breathless! I hope this little endorsement will encourage some of my followers to read her books!
The Escape Artist (1998) (whoop!) I neglected to write a review of this one, but I still recommend it highly! One of Chamberlain’s earlier books, this one has a single timeline but is still written in her signature style with a story that demands attention and a wild ending!
See that date up there? June 13th? Mark it on your calendar. Mark it… Are you marking? You better be marking…
Oh, Isadora. I just love you. I want to be friends with you. Twenty years ago I think I was you. Why did I let your story sit in my Kindle for 4 months? This was a story that spoke to my heart. It is a story that will speak to the heart of any introverted, cerebral, never-married-but-wants-to-be woman in her thirties who wonders why that kind of happiness seems to only be reserved for other people.
Chicago University researcher, Isadora Bentley, is celebrating her thirtieth birthday. Alone. (Does that qualify as celebrating?) Alone except for the local mini mart’s sugary delicacies that await her in Aisle 8. Twinkies, chocolate, and a 2 liter of Coke have medicinal properties that the science world has yet to recognize. (If you know, you know.) While checking out, Isadora spots a headline on a magazine: 31 Steps to Happiness, by Dr. Grace Monroe. Ha! 31 Steps. What a crock. On a whim of rebellion, Isadora buys the magazine with the intent of testing Dr. Monroe’s theory. She will implement one step per day–in any order–record her findings, and prove, unequivocally, that happiness can never be achieved so simplistically.
Unfortunately, most of these steps involve interacting with other people. Yuck. People. People lead to feelings, and feelings lead to loss and sadness and hurt. And Isadora has been hurt. A lot. Who wants that? Alone is safe. Alone is comfortable. Alone is…sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be.
Except that when you are a university researcher like Isadora, who is supposed to be working with other people, being alone isn’t always an option. Her self-imposed solitude is interrupted when Isadora’s boss assigns her to work with opposite-of-ugly Dr. Cal Baxter, a psychologist preparing a book for publication and conducting his own experiment.
Over the next year, Isadora Bentley embarks on a roller coaster ride of self-discovery, soul-searching, emotions, and regret. This sounds heavy–and it is–except that all of this wisdom is dressed in so much hilarity (her inner dialogue made me LOL on multiple occasions) that you almost don’t realize that you, the reader, are learning something too. And there are feelings–deep, deep feelings–as our beloved heroine goes on this journey, realizing that, while defensive walls are sometimes necessary, they aren’t always the answer.
I adored this book, its writing, characters, and many insightful nuggets. It’s a treasure. I highly recommend it. Remember: June 13.
Assumptions. We’ve all made them. We create narratives for strangers based on their housing (or lack thereof,) their jobs, their weight, race, religion, political party, tattoos, piercings, clothes, hair color…need I go on? No. Anyone reading this knows what I’m talking about. You probably did it today and so did I. The assumptions are usually wrong and yet, we keep on doing it. We’ve all been on the receiving end too, likely in a hurtful way, promising ourselves we would never do that to someone else…and yet…
The irony is that we all know the solution. Once we truly get to know someone, once they become distinct and a friend, those categories we originally focused on vanish. It’s amazing what a little effort and a little compassion can accomplish.
This is the theme of The Night of Many Endings, by Melissa Payne, a unique book with five main characters, each dealing with their own losses and challenges, each making incorrect assumptions about the others, and each set on a new path after one momentous night.
It is closing time at the library in Silver Ridge, Colorado. Head librarian, Nora, is ready to resume the search for her missing older brother, an addict and transient. Assistant librarian Marlene, a recent widow and self-appointed watchdog, has just caught teenager, Jasmine, stuffing an unchecked book into her bag. Horrors. Vlado, the steady, calm security guard, prepares for an evening of reading to further his education. Outside, Lewis, a grizzled old homeless man, numbs the pain with some obscure white powder. Five lives, five people who have no intention of letting their stories overlap.
Until a blizzard changes their plans. A tree falls and the roads become impassable. Suddenly Nora, Marlene, Jasmine, Vlado, and Lewis are stuck in the library all night. With no power, minimal sustenance, and dwindling cell phone batteries, options are limited. So is patience, understanding, and generosity. However, as conditions at the library get colder, defenses drop and hearts start to thaw.
If you were a teen in the eighties as I was, you remember the iconic John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, about the motley crew of five high school students stuck in Saturday detention. The Night of Many Endings reminded me of that film, but is still a story all its own. One that is profound and thought-provoking.
This was a terrific read. I put a lot of scenes through my own filter of experience. Sometimes I felt light and hopeful, sometimes I felt shame and regret. But I left with a personal vow to try and be better. In my opinion, that is what this story is trying to teach us. I recommend it.
My reading has slowed down a lot this month because of the beta reading detour, but I would be remiss if I did not dedicate a blog post to A Heart Worth Stealing, by Joanna Barker. Because beneath this unassuming cover is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read–yes, you read that right! No matter how often I was pulled away, which was frequently, this book always called me back.
It is 1805, and Genevieve Wilde, an heiress in her mid-twenties, has been tasked with running her father’s vast estate after his death. Aside from overseeing the house accounts and the servants, she must now contend with threats and vandalism from an anonymous source. And, to top it off, her father’s beloved pocket watch is missing. Whether or not its absence is related to the ongoing drama is unknown and irrelevant. All Genevieve wants is to get it back.
Ignored by the police and condescended to by the local magistrate, Genevieve decides to hire a thief-taker, an unusual choice for a lady of her position. Enter Jack Travers, who insists he is the man for the job if only Genevieve will tolerate his methods, which are anything but conventional. And this is where the fun begins. Jack and “Ginny” embark on a relationship filled with tug-of-war banter, putting forth their efforts to outwit each other as much as finding the watch. In doing so, and with the story enhanced by some colorful supporting characters, feelings and secrets come to light while intrigue and adventure abound.
I would love, LOVE to see this book done as a film, because that is how it played out in my mind. And one of the best parts is that all of these entertaining escapades are achieved without steam or vulgarity. They rely solely and successfully on fantastic, high-quality writing. If you love historical fiction and want a clean story with wit, wonder, and tenderness, you will love this one! Joanna Barker has been a great author discovery! I will definitely read more of her books.
Today I have that feeling of heavy sighs that I used to get at the end of a semester at BYU. Finals are done, apartment cleaning and checkout are done, and packing to head back home is all done. Done, but not over. Because the cycle will soon begin again with a new, exciting chapter.
Why am I feeling this now?
Because, for the last week and a half I’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool, learning to swim as a brand new beta reader for author Boo Walker.
Some background: I first discovered Boo’s books early last year when I read an advanced copy of A Spanish Sunrise on NetGalley. I instantly knew I wanted more of this author’s books. A Spanish Sunrise quickly became a 10-Star book on this blog and I raced to find more. I discovered and read An Unfinished Story and The Singing Trees and loved those too. All three have wonderfully layered characters who go on unique life journeys. I highly recommend ALL of them.
Next was signing up for his author newsletter, something I tell fellow readers to do if they want to connect with a favorite writer. Most well-known authors have websites and newsletters. Many also reach out to their readers on Facebook and Instagram. These are great ways to get publishing updates, participate in giveaways, learn about book tours, hear about movie adaptations, and discover fun little bookish products. Gone are the days of the reclusive writer stereotype. Today is about connection and authors are no different. Many are very personable and love hearing from their readers.
But as you would expect, some authors are more responsive than others. Of the ones I subscribe to, which is 10-15, Boo makes the most effort to interact with his readers. (Mimi Matthews and Wade Rouse aka Viola Shipman are both in second place.) He sometimes offers to send advanced copies and audio versions of his books at his own expense, often signed, and will throw out fun questions like “I need two cat names for this certain character. Suggestions?”
I “kind of” had an idea what a beta reader was (I thought) and last August I emailed Boo and asked him if he would consider bringing me on board. His reply was that his team was full, but I would go on a wait list. In December, I was recruited for his 2024 book. What a thrill!
Then five months went by. I had no idea what to expect or when to expect it. Until Monday of last week. “Attn: Beta Readers!” shouted an email from my inbox. We were off to the races.
We were sent the book’s first half and we had eight days to get our notes back to him. It took me nearly three days to find my footing with logistics, i.e. learning HOW to beta read and using the Track Changes feature in Apple Pages. A new skill for me. So I felt pretty behind at first, but I caught up. I am very grateful to Boo for his guidance, patience, and quick responses to my questions. Any help I asked for, he gave.
I had so much fun! It wasn’t easy, but I loved it. Looking at content, finding inconsistencies, commenting on what does/doesn’t work, suggesting character qualities, pointing out anachronisms, making word suggestions, asking for more of this or less of that, etc. It tapped into my favorite skill set. My biggest challenge was figuring out when to put things under a microscope (my default) and when to pull back and look at everything as a whole. Also to be tactful in my suggestions. I learned so much, mostly to trust the author and the process.
In case you’re wondering, yes, this is an unpaid gig. And it isn’t about getting advanced copies of a book. This is about an author getting early feedback from readers he trusts. I’ve received some terrific comments from Boo on my notes (which I sent back one day early, thank you very much) but the story belongs to him. He is the one who thought of it, who researched it, who has to deal with deadlines and marketing, who has to sift through suggestions from beta readers and editors, who must endure reviews, and who takes ultimate responsibility for the finished product. And you know what? He can have it. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of work.
My compensation is the satisfaction of knowing that the story is evolving using suggestions I contributed. It’s a terrific high knowing an author I respect wants my opinions and will be implementing some of my ideas. And yes, that is enough. I am very excited to see the next draft!
I expect to receive the second half of the book some time next month and will probably see later drafts as well. In the meantime, check out Boo Walker’s other books! And keep an eye out for this year’s book, The Stars Don’t Lie, available on August 22nd! It’s excellent! A tribute to teachers everywhere.
You can also read this terrific article on the concept of beta reading HERE. It’s an invaluable resource for authors.
And you can see Boo talk about his growth as a writer and the upcoming book in this recent 11 min video:
“The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” ― Emilia Hart, Weyward
Three women across five centuries are bound by an ancient name, a special gift, a humble cottage, and hardship. This is the story of Weyward, a loving tribute to the strength of females everywhere.
England, 1619. Altha, like many others of her era, has been accused of witchcraft and must stand trial for her alleged crimes. Violet, languishing in her family’s mansion in 1942, longs to know more of the outside world. And Kate, pregnant and afraid, escapes an abusive relationship in 2019, fleeing to a cottage left to her by a great aunt she never knew.
One by one, we learn more about these extraordinary women. We discover their connections to the mysteries of nature and to each other, showing their collective ability to rise above their constraints and the men who try to dominate them. They have their accusers, their predators, and their allies. But first they must endure their separate challenges and tap into the history and secrets that weave their stories together.
Weyward is an exceptional debut novel. It is unique, beautiful, haunting, and uplifting. Be aware that there are definite triggers, such as rape and emotional/physical abuse. But also know that in its storytelling lies the message that overcoming such things is possible. The power is within all of us.
Another winner by Gordon Korman! I enjoy his books so much! And I say this with no apologies because I’m fully aware that his target audience is middle school preteens. Even so, the messages are for everyone. In fact, I wish more adults would read his books.
Here we follow the journey of Capricorn “Cap” Anderson, a sensitive thirteen year old who has been raised and home-schooled by his grandmother. They live together on a modest farm, once a thriving commune, raising their own food and shunning the materialism that has overtaken society. But when Cap’s grandma is hospitalized, his world turns upside down. Now he must go to public school, navigate the social fabric of cliques and bullies, use modern technology, and learn Life’s harshest lessons, all while staying with his new social worker and her pretty but moody teenage daughter.
As you can guess, the mean kids immediately prey on Cap and exploit his innocence. As a joke, he is elected 8th grade class president and becomes the target of every prank imaginable. But is a prank a success when the “prankee” doesn’t react? With his calm demeanor, morning tai chi, and forgiving nature, Cap is no ordinary middle school student. Instead, he exudes generosity and positivity, qualities that eclipse others’ nonsense.
This story was a delight. Anyone of any age can see the subtext that peace and humility always win over violence and arguing. If you want to read a book full of humor and heart, I highly recommend this one. Read it with your kids, read it for yourself. Just read it.
This week, in an effort to fulfill some challenges for my book group, I read two novels that dealt with time travel. I’ll admit, there were things I liked about both of them and things that I did not. But I did realize what a tricky subject time travel is in a story. There are many details to consider: how does the person fall into another time? Do they stay or return? Do they bring someone back or leave them forever? Who do they tell? How much does their visit disrupt the future?
Let’s take a look at the two books I read, knowing that the concept of time travel is something still unexplored in reality and that a suspension of belief is required in order to embrace it in a plot.
I struggled with both books, but I liked the way time travel was handled more in Forever You, by Leah Busboom. If you’ve seen the movie Kate & Leopold, with its lightning strike and time portal, then you’ll have an idea of the way country singer, Lacy, accidentally jumps from 2021 to 1855 in the blink of an eye. Half of the book is her life in the past, half of it is in the present. She grapples with the lack of modern conveniences and is very self-aware of what she can and cannot endure in an era when everything was more difficult. She never tries to be someone she isn’t and makes some hard choices. The events of the past and present are sewn together in a clever way and, though the story itself is a bit syrupy, I appreciated that it stayed focused on Lacy and her two important relationships without a lot of external distractions. 8.5/10 Stars
What the Wind Knows, by Amy Harmon, is mainly set in Ireland. In 2001, writer Anne Gallagher travels from New York to the Emerald Isle to scatter her beloved grandfather’s ashes. In a swirl of mist and fog she is transported eighty years into the past, landing in 1921 amidst the Irish War of Independence. She is mistaken for her namesake (her great grandmother) who had gone missing, and must adjust to the time period and the questions about her sudden “reappearance.” Revolutionary Michael Collins and his crusade for Ireland’s freedom from Britain play large roles, forcing the reader to juggle a lot of names, events, historical facts, and fictional characters. The writing is lovely, especially as Anne spends time with long-deceased family members, but I felt like the story was trying to accomplish too much, which became tiresome. I would’ve preferred a trimmed-down version without the political drama. The ending, while hopeful, felt a bit forced in order to gift wrap a satisfying conclusion. 8/10 Stars
Here are the books I read this month! Twenty-six in all. Several were average, there was one huge disappointment (which you can read about in my previous post,) and a handful of delights, mostly from familiar authors I can usually rely on to deliver a great story.
The biggest surprises were The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews and The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain. Surprises because, while I expected them to be very good since these are go-to authors for me, I didn’t expect them to be superb, which they were! The one by Mimi Matthews is the first in a four-part series, so I’ll talk about it more in another post, BUT I will say that the Kindle book for The Matrimonial Advertisement is only $0.99 right now. Totally worth it! This is a clean, semi-gothic romance with fantastic characters. If you buy the book, the audio is only $1.99.
If you want books that are also excellent with some unusual plots, I recommend Just a Regular Boy by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander. The stories are a bit on the somber side, but very thought-provoking and unique. You can go to the blog search and/or menus to find their individual reviews.
So on to May! It’s nearly May, how is this possible?? I have a few reads lined up already. Let’s see how many get conquered.
What a frustrating book. I was so looking forward to it. The release date has been on my calendar for ages. Now the disappointment I’m feeling is palpable.
Have you ever been to a party where you don’t know anybody? Where all the people have memories and history with everyone else but not with you? Where, when you try to enter a conversation, all they do is talk around you and keep saying things like “hey, remember that time we (not you)…?” You’re constantly left out and reminded that you don’t belong. That is a little what it was like to spend time with Wyn, Harriet, and their four friends.
Which brings me to the next set of problems. These are six friends who are educated professionals (a doctor, two lawyers, two urban farmers, and a talented furniture maker) that aren’t very interesting except for the collective gift of acting unbelievably stupid. There is drunkenness and amnesia-inducing hangovers, pot gummies, a random bra that goes flying, and other nonsense. Segue into childish bickering, no concept about the difference between sex and love, terrible communication, and…need I go on? This is immature teenage idiocy, not the behavior of supposedly intelligent adults. It wasn’t funny or charming, and it certainly wasn’t enjoyable to read.
But wait, there’s more. We have Wyn and Harriet who were engaged and are now broken up but don’t want to tell their friends and ruin the week they’re spending together. So now we fall into the tropes that are so overdone they have their own taglines: fake dating, forced proximity, friends to lovers, second chances, found family, blah, blah, blah. And don’t even get me started on why they broke up in the first place and the ending that fails to redeem itself. It’s ridiculous. *sigh* Did I mention I was frustrated?
This book is a total misfire. I tried to like it, but it kept going downhill. Add the slow pacing, dual timelines that switched over at the worst times, unnecessary drama, and “angsty but cool” characters (which rarely works,) and I have to wonder if Emily Henry was abducted by aliens and someone else is standing in for her. I don’t like saying it, but Happy Place is so beneath her talent. Where are the likeable characters? The wit? The solid writing? It’s not here.